I’ve just spent a couple of days in Amsterdam. It was an unplanned, last minute, impromptu reaction to reading The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton – my book club’s choice for this month. You can read my Goodreads review here. I’ve visited Amsterdam loads of times before but always on business, so this time I wanted to go just for fun and be a tourist.
When I started reading The Miniaturist I had no idea that Nella Oortmans and Johannes Brandt actually existed (but Jessie B made up her own version of their story – as the real Nella was a wealthy widow when she married Johannes). As soon as I saw the paintings of dead birds and moulding fruit I felt I was in Nella’s bedroom. I went in search of cabinets and found not only richly inlaid ones but the actual tortoisehell and pewter dollshouse cabinet that was given to the real Nella by her husband. Apparently this would have cost as much as a real life house on the canals, being filled with handcrafted furniture, miniature paintings, real upholstered furniture and porcelain ware. There was even a birdcage for the parrot in the kitchen! This was an unexpected delight. I also saw a painting with a caged parrot that I’m sure was also an inspiration for Peebo the parrot in the book.
I managed to fit in visits to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum and in doing so worked out some strategies for maximising enjoyment and minimising engagement with the crowds. In both cases I was there ready and waiting as they opened. In the Rijksmusem I should have gone straight to the NightWatch – but didn’t think of that – so hit it as the hundreds of school kids did. No matter – I did have quiet enjoyment of the 17th century rooms – where it felt like I was stepping into the pages of the Miniaturist.
Visiting a museum under no pressure means you can linger over things that you didn’t expect to find or know anything about previously. I discovered the fascinating Johan de Witt of Dordrecht who in 1653 at the age of 28 was the biggest hot shot in Holland, becoming chief administrator and presiding over increasing prosperity for the country. In 1672 he was ousted when William III of Orange came to power and along with his brother, brutally assassinated by the mob. This very gruesome painting below testified to his sticky end. I’d never heard of Mr De Witt before – but I’m sure there could be a fascinating novel built around his short life and unhappy death.
At the Van Gogh I started top down – and enjoyed the last floor completely alone! On the next floor I had to mingle with about a half dozen others – no problem. Both these floors deal with his troubled last couple of years including his hospitalisation so it felt right to be taking it all in quietly. It was only when I hit the room on the 1st Floor where Sunflowers and Bedroom at Arles were hanging that I met the school children and rush of visitors.
Another place where I was able to steep myself in a bit of historical colour was Rembrandt’s house – a classic Amsterdam narrow house. I hadn’t known that people used to sleep sitting up (fear that being horizontal might bring on an early death) and often in what are effectively cupboards! Rembrandt had several of these beds including one for the servant in the kitchen! This one below is in his reception room, where he entertained clients there to buy paintings (he was a dealer as well as an artist) – and this bed would probably have been used by visitors.
I loved seeing the pigments that Rembrandt would have used – mixed with linseed oil – all set out in his studio.
Another highlight was visiting the Oude Kirk which features several times in The Miniaturist. This is Amsterdam’s oldest church and, as portrayed in the book, used to house the corpses of eminent citizens, buried under the floor, creating a terrible stench especially during an interment. The misericords in the Choir are also fascinating – some very gruesome and unchurchlike – particularly one featuring an old woman evicerating a naked young woman – literally pulling her intestines out through her arse!
All in all a short but interesting break. Amsterdam is such an easy city to get around on foot or – if, as in my case, you’re unlucky and the heavens open – on the excellent trams.